During the 2012 Olympic games there were complaints from other nations implying that the bicycles used by the British Olympic cycling team did not comply with the technical regulations of the competition. Most vehement in these complaints were the French who accused the British squad of hiding technical changes to their bikes.
The team manager of the British Team Dave (soon to be Sir David) Brailsford robustly defended his athletes and engineers. He pointed out that under the terms of the competition all bicycles used had to be commercially available. If the French wanted to examine the British bikes prior to the competition, all they had to do was visit the UK Cycling website and buy one.
Brailsford then went on to describe his approach to making the British team the best prepared squad in the games. He knew he could trust his athletes to give their all in training and competition; he knew his bike builders would deliver a competitive machine; what was key were the small incremental changes which set the British team apart from their competition. This was the famous ‘marginal gains’ strategy which has now been adopted by many other sports. One of the most prominent marginal gains on display were the heated shorts worn by British cyclists between their warm up ride and the actual race.
What Brailsford was expressing was the adoption of the Japanese Kaizen system to competitive sport.
Kaizen, or the Toyota Production System, was developed in post-war Japan as a crucial element of the country’s redevelopment. The process is often regarded as the application of total quality management to production processes. Staff are encouraged to suggest and develop small incremental improvements to their working practices and environment. It does not matter the scale of the improvements; they may only save a few seconds of an employees time; but when all those seconds are added together, a significant improvement in productivity can be measured.
For example, at the Mini production plant in Oxford, the production line was changed so a car chassis was tilted onto its side to allow easier access to the channels holding the brake cables. This was better ergonomically as staff no longer had to position cables above their heads. It also speeded up the production line.
The cable laying solution was a fairly major adaptation of the line but another Kaizen improvement was to change the glue on quality control stickers so they could be removed from their paper backing more easily. This improvement saved fractions of a second but since hundreds of stickers had to be applied each shift, the cumulative improvement in productivity was significant.
The above Kaizen changes improved productivity but they also improved staff morale and build quality. By having involvement in designing their working practices, staff felt they were being appreciated by their managers.
In computer software manufacture, a similar process is beta testing. This involves software firms giving trusted customers a preview of new software. The customers get to use the software, to identify bugs and to suggest improvements. Each bug spotted by a customer or each suggested improvement may be marginal but the when they are collated, they can help to develop a vastly improved programme or app.
Given that marketing planning and strategy is an ongoing process and that the marketing environment is constantly shifting, it makes sense to apply a Kaizen or marginal gains approach to marketing activity. It should not just be the purview of product development or manufacturing; marginal gains should be applied to your marketing strategy and plans.
Many small firms may be guilty of a “way we do things around here” approach. This means that the focus in on long-used methods of promotion and marketing. Instead of the strategy being adapted to fit its environment, it is developed in spite of the prevailing environment.
I also suspect many small firms see changes of strategy as major events in the life of their business which involve big changes to their working practices and structures. This was certainly the case during my time in local government. Every policy change or change in senior management seemed to bring with it a major reorganisation of the department where I worked. Managers stopped managing service delivery and their time was almost completely taken up with internal reorganisation rather than improving service delivery. The local authority in question ended up with revolving door reorganisations where managers constantly dealt with planning the next change and dealing with the effects of the last.
This shift in focus rather than improving efficiency and increasing service delivery actually decreased both. Staff morale was destroyed and productivity reduced. Exactly the opposite effects to those proposed as a reason to reorganise.
Small businesses need to realise that the markets in which they operate are in a constant state of flux. Rather than focusing on occasional major reorganisations of strategy; or remaining static in a changing environment; small companies would be better placed in havng a constantly evolving marketing mix and strategies which apply marginal gains.